Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Flames Engulf Belgrade Mosque

Locals stunned by mob attack on historic Ottoman building following Kosovo rioting.
By Dragana Nikolic-Solomon

As the flames flickered through the stone walls of the 17th-century Bajrakli mosque in Belgrade, the sound of Orthodox church music played surreally from a nearby car. A man appeared out of the clouds of smoke, carrying a looted green flag with the crescent of Islam. "Serbia has Risen!" he shouted.


It was a picture that most of Belgrade’s inhabitants hoped never to see again after the overthrow of nationalist president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.


A group of about hundred young demonstrators, most in their twenties, carrying batons and wearing T-shirts wrapped around their heads, clashed with around 30 policemen guarding the mosque - a relic of Serbia's centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule - in Gospodar Jevremova street in the city centre. Most appeared to be drunk, and many clutched one-litre plastic bottles of beer in their hands.


“Death to the Shiptars!" they yelled, using a pejorative word for Albanians.


But not everyone was yelling. One man in his forties was weeping near this scene of chaos. He had come to Belgrade for the day on business, leaving his wife, three children and elderly parents in the Serbian enclave around the village of Gracanica in central Kosovo. "I don't know if they are going to survive the night," he told me.


While the TV pictures beamed round the world may have conveyed the impression of a city in flames, in reality the atmosphere resembled the aftermath of a rowdy football match. Away from the scene of the smoke-covered mosque, the youths among the smashed cars and plundered shop windows were clearly enjoying themselves.


Equally clearly, many local residents were stunned by the events. They condemned the attack on the mosque as an act of vandalism carried out by people whose real goal was theft. “This is an uncivilised act”, one older man shouted bravely.


But the mob had only just begun. Within 15 minutes, protesters belonging to an extreme nationalist youth organization named Obraz had converged with thuggish football fans supporting the city's Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) and Partizan teams, and together had broken through the police cordon. The sound of breaking windows in the mosque could soon be heard. When the police tried to stop their attack the men shouted, "Go to Kosovo!"


The mob looted the mosque interior, and then started fires both inside and outside the building. Inside, computers, pictures and books were destroyed. A man with a looted red fez on his head appeared suddenly from the flames holding plunder inside his leather jacket. An older passer-by tried to persuade him to take it back, with no success.


One of the protesters, named Milos, aged 19, and from Belgrade, told IWPR they were determined to burn the mosque in revenge for the Serbian homes and churches that the “Shiptars” were burning down in Kosovo. “There is no need for this [mosque] to be in the middle of Belgrade," he added. "We will raze it to the ground tonight”.


While the demonstrators carried on with the task they had set themselves, the police retreated several streets away. Curiously, in a city which is normally full of police, no reinforcements appeared. Nor was there any sign of the authorities making a serious attempt to stop the attack on the mosque, the looting of its contents, the destruction of nearby vehicles or the plundering of shops.


Although Bishop Amfilohije, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, came to the scene to try to stop the plunder and asked the protestors not to continue, he did not succeed.


Nebojsa Bakarec, a member of prime minister Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, was on the scene and looked shaken by the destruction of the mosque. He was appalled by the destruction of such an historic monument and told IWPR he queried the lack of a strong police presence.


“Who are these people and where do they come from?" he asked. "Are they here just to have fun?"


Even members of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, voiced their disapproval. Stojanovic Radoslav, 63, deputy president of the local SRS board, told IWPR: “We are against such destruction," he said. "It is shameful that the Nis mosque has been burned down,” he added, refering to the mosque in southern Serbia that was torched at the same time as its counterpart in Belgrade.


“All Radicals think like me,” he continued. “The point is to ensure security for all people whatever their nationality – and to dissolve [the need for Serb] enclaves [in Kosovo]."


Milan, a DSS member, was more nuanced in his disapproval. He said he had gone into the street to join the protests after hearing news reports of violence in Kosovo on local TV. He said the international community should stop what he called “Albanian terrorism” against Kosovo's other ethnic groups. “We all came spontaneously to protest in front of the mosque, as a symbol of Islam,” he said.


His friend, Jugoslav, a member of the 1992 War Veterans Association, said he too had come to publicly express his anger over what was happening in Kosovo. “I haven’t been baptised, but every Serb cares about what is holy Serbian land,” he said.


While groups of young men attacked the mosque, Serbia and Montenegro's Supreme Defence Council went into emergency session throughout the night. After the session the council called on UNMIK, KFOR and other international institutions in Kosovo to protect the lives and property of the remaining Serbs and Montenegrins there.


The defence council also suggested it was ready to help the international forces in Kosovo stabilise the situation, in accordance with UN Resolution 1244, an offer the international forces in Kosovo are most unlikely to take up.


“We are ready to take part in protecting our citizens, in accordance with our international obligations,” said Boris Tadic, defence minister of Serbia and Montenegro.


With the mosques in Nis and Belgrade forgotten amid the public outrage over the burning of churches in Kosovo, it was left to Rasim Ljajic, minister for human and minority rights and Serbia and Montenegro, to say he felt ashamed that the Muslim buildings had gone up in smoke.


Dragana Nikolic is IWPR’s country director for Serbia and Montenegro.